Urban Infrastructure and Democracy

The term smart cities gets a lot of play in the tech press and there are many companies that present solutions in this space. But the root cause of the problem isn’t the lack of technology. Rather, it is pressure of population and the scarcity of resources in urban agglomerations, in a future that seems almost as inevitable as climate change. Given this dystopian near-future, sustainability is the most important aspect that a wannabe smart city should focus on. And sustainability requires active and enthusiastic participation from citizens. Instead of focussing on how many objects in a city are connected, the emphasis should be on disseminating information and knowledge (which is quite a different concept) to citizens, so that they can participate fruitfully in how their city and life is governed. In my opinion, this is the smartest thing a smart-city could do.

Recently, the Indian government announced an urban renewal and infrastructural development mission that envisages the creation of 100 smart cities as a part of a larger agenda of creating an industrial corridor between the existing mega-cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. While the mission may be ambitious (and laudable) in terms of providing access to world-class infrastructure, to a large proportion of the population, it would be foolish to expect growth to be smooth and sustainable without explicit steps taken to ensure that this happens. Depending on city growth to somehow organically result in an increase in the quality of life is a recipe for disaster. Anyone who has navigated Bangalore traffic knows that unless urban infrastructural problems (and solutions) are measured and scrutinized regularly in an objective manner, there is no hope of improvement in city life.

The Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy attempts to provide the first part of the jigsaw, in this regard. Their annual survey on city-systems is a data-rich report with problem evaluation and measurement. Anyone interested in a bird’s eye view of problems, across 21 Indian cities should take a look. London and New York are included as benchmarks.